I rarely plan ahead when I don’t have to. Except when I’m anxious. Which is why I’m already thinking about income tax filing. I see that my freelance income this year is hovering below that of recent years. I’m not just worried about the flat trajectory of my income. I’m pausing to reflect on and question the ratio of my paid to unpaid work hours. The math is not in my favor, at least financially speaking.
When I say “unpaid work” I’m not talking about civic volunteer work unrelated to journalism, such as working at a hospice or homeless shelter. Nor am I talking about taking career-development classes (photo, radio, website-design, etc.). I’m referring to career-related activities that don’t pay. In my case those include speaking at and moderating panels at at university and other conferences (upcoming Net Zero Cities, for instance), leading freelance workshops, working on a volunteer-powered science radio show on KGNU called How On Earth, mentoring young journalists, writing blogs, etc.
When I take responsibility for my choices (none of this was forced upon me, after all), instead of whine or self-flagellate, I see an image of a sort of Holy Trinity (bear with this recovering Catholic). More prosaically, a three-legged stool.
Professional goals and mission.
Profit motive — financial goals.
These three Ps together support the stool on which I’m perched. They are far more earthly than the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But when I sense them together I feel a certain call to treat life as sacred. That includes making serious choices about how much, and what kind of, paid and unpaid work I pursue. Some work (often unpaid) feeds my soul. Other work puts soles on my feet. Some work does both.
For now, the benefits of the unpaid work, especially radio – having fun, working on a team, seeding future print stories, developing multimedia skills, interviewing cool scientists, helping to educate residents about important issues – outweigh the downsides, such as a shrunken bank account and fewer published articles. (Luckily, our kids are in graduate school and making their own freelance-equivalent living so my overhead isn’t crippling.)
I tapped into the collective SciLance wisdom to learn how other journalists weigh non-paid versus paid work. One friend offered a clear-headed rationale for saying “yes” to the “passion projects.”
“This is the stuff that makes us happy. That helps us to get out of bed some mornings when the list of bill-paying to-dos is daunting and even dry and depressing. It gives us that extra sparkle.”
On a similar vein, another friend offered this.
“I think you have to figure out how to do something that feeds your soul even if the money isn’t there yet. So if it makes you happy and you can figure out how to fit it in or parlay it into work that pays, that’s ideal.”
She added this caveat:
“The flip side of that is that I need to be making enough money to feel like I can be creative — it’s a delicate balance.”
Indeed, in my experience anxiety can subvert curiosity and creativity when I’m not making “enough” money to live in the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Another colleague has created a calculus that works for him. He allots eight hours a week to unpaid “passion work” that relates to science journalism. When he considers taking on not-for-pay work he mulls the following:
“I think about each unpaid possibility that I’m asked to do in a ‘how is this going to help me’ kind of way. If I can answer that question with a ‘will help me build a relationship,’ then I do it.”
Yet another SciLancer offered reflections on how she set limits on doing pro bono work after going overboard.
“I’ve come to realize that when you have to fight harder for a pay raise than most and if the work isn’t something you’re passionate about, then free isn’t always worth it.”
As I look more deeply at the paid:unpaid ratio, I’m committed to applying the following criteria toward achieving some balance:
- Longer-term, cap unpaid work at 20 percent of my work hours (lower if our household expenses rise or my husband’s income drops).
- Reduce unpaid project hours if I end up working both weekend days to do so.
- Only accept unpaid work if within three months it yields related paid assignments, bigger-picture career growth spurts, or simply excites me beyond reason.
I’m calling this my fall resolution. Why wait until New Year’s? as SciLance’s Anne Sasso (bio) recently wrote. Maybe I am more of a planner than I thought. Then again, I hate setting myself up for failure, which often happens when I make a New Year’s resolution. So I’ll try this on for the rest of 2013. My three-legged stool may take on new legs next year, after all.
Image via Haldane Martin on Flickr.